Many, many years ago, I worked on my high school newspaper. Between my junior and senior years, I also went to Northwestern University for a special summer class for high school journalism students. I loved it, and when it came time to go to a college, I was one of five females accepted in Northwestern’s journalism school.
I didn’t last long. They locked all the girls in the dorms at 9 pm at night. Remember, I said it was a long time ago. I was so affronted, I went out the window on sheets and ran off to New York to do Off-Broadway. There went my brilliant career in journalism.
With the advent of the Web, anyone can and often does consider her or himself a journalist. Newspapers and news magazines are morphing from reliable purveyors of objective facts with our mourning coffee into 140 character tweets. You need a smart phone or a computer rather than the nickel of my childhood to know what’s going on. Ok, I exaggerate a bit, but even though I like the idea of citizen journalists, I have to wonder if we are missing out on something important here.
I began these musings after attending Pantheacon and the controversial discussion that took place there and on the web. Those of us in attendance at the discussion knew the press was there. We did not know everything was being taped with the intention of uploading the entire discussion to the web. To be fair, I understand that one of the discussion organizers was informed that taping was happening, but no one else knew. I have no idea if people would have objected, but a great many painful, personal stories were told that might not have been. After all, with way back machines, what goes online can stay there forever. In addition, the discussion took place in the context of a religious ritual, where photography is forbidden. One might assume taping would be as well, and certainly would be against the rules of Pantheacon. Again, to be fair, when this was later pointed out to those who did the taping, along with a request by the discussion organizer not to post the tape, they complied.
I simply use this event as an example to explore the issue of ethical journalism in the digital age. I asked my husband, who was with the LA Times for 28 years before becoming a university webmaster, what were the three most important things he learned about the craft.
He believes that the whole point of professional journalism is
equipping the reader with a.) the objective facts, b.) the context in which those facts were reportedly made relevant and c.) the clearly identified interpretation of the broader significance of the conjunction of the objective facts and the specific context.
He admits that this may be
a quaint throwback to the Avuncular Age of Walter Cronkite, but this is the truly craftsperson-like element where the experienced observer, whose narrative voice is clearly indicated as an informed observer, attempts to connect the facts and the contexts to the broader fabric of human existence.
Sounds ideal, no?
My dear friend Lee Quarnstrom was editor of the high school paper a year ahead of me. Instead of going on to college, he went straight into the news business and just retired about 5 years ago. Lee’s (highly abbreviated) take is a little different.
There was no journalistic code of ethics when I started at age 19 as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago. The main thing was to get the story, no matter how — and report it accurately. . . In other words, get the fact straight, double-check them with another source if possible and don’t trust anybody, whether it’s a cop or the mayor or your friend who’s the spokesman for the mayor — and ESPECIALLY if it’s an individual or an organization that you agree with.
First, women and men who are going to write or text or blog or post their own individual or collective opinions or who are going to “expose” people they disagree with in order to bolster their side of an argument are not journalists.
So, right off the bat, it should be understood that there are journalists, i.e., reporters who report what they see and hear and learn, etc. and who turn over rocks looking for dirt wherever there are rocks, not just conservative rocks. And then there are editorialists and opinion writers who do just what those titles sound like.
[And] now that we are in a world where any one and everyone is a journalist, or thinks they are journalists to be more precise, these kinds of issues are on the minds of lots of real reporters and investigative journalists.
Neither man gave me a Thou shalt list for citizen journalists, or even a Thou shalt not. I wonder if these kinds of conversations are going on among those bloggers who are trying to report the news. What is the ethical core that guides their postings? Do they have a community where these ethical considerations are shared? Do they feel the need of the kind of sounding board where these things can be explored, or do they think they have it all figured out?
As for me, I’m not a journalist, just a blogger.